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Momentous weekend for Mayo’s Burmese community

Group at the Convention Centre, Dublin
The Karen from Castlebar and Ballina after recieivng their naturalisation papers at the Convention Centre, Dublin on Sunday. Pic: Alison Laredo

Momentous weekend of celebration for Mayo Karen community

Edwin McGreal

When husband and wife Taki and Phaw Shee Hta fled from their Karen enclave in Burma from the persecution of the military government in 1997 they dreamed of peace, freedom and independence.
None of these were among the options in their native country, but the weekend just gone saw what often felt like a distant dream move closer to reality for them .
The landmark election victory of Aung San Suu Kyi in the first free elections in the Asian country for over two decades moved the possibility of peace closer while Taki and Phaw Shee Hta gained their own level of independence in their adopted country of Ireland at the weekend.
They were among 35 Karen refugees based in Mayo who were presented with Irish citizenship documents at a special ceremony in the Convention Centre in Dublin.
They travelled en masse to Dublin for the ceremony, many dressed in traditional Karen dress with Taki sporting a very colourful hand-woven top in the colours of the Irish flag.
“We are so happy and so excited,” Phaw Shee Hta told The Mayo News yesterday. “We were happy in Burma because it was our home but it was not safe because the government came to fight in our village. We had to leave home in 1997. I miss my country. We enjoy it here though because it is safe.”
In two citizenship ceremonies this year, 57 members of the Karen community based in Castlebar and Ballina have received Irish citizenship.

Group at the Convention Centre, Dublin
IRISH AND PROUD Burmese couple Taki and Phaw Shee Hta at the Convention Centre, Dublin where the citizen ceremony was held. Pic: Alison Laredo

Therese Ruane of Mayo Intercultural Action, who have worked closely to help the community familiarise themselves with Irish life and culture, says the Karen people have been a joy to work with.
“Five years ago 10 families came to Castlebar and eight to Ballina as part of the UN Refugee Programme. Because so many of the Karen community had lived in forests they had an awful lot of adjusting to do. They had never even seen a shower before. It is phenomenal how well they’ve integrated. And there’s new members of the community since they came here with Irish names like Saoirse, Óisin, Ryan and Anna-Lee. Three of the Karen even sang the Irish National Anthem as Gaeilge after the ceremony,” Ms Ruane told The Mayo News.
The difficulties in adjusting is something that Phaw Shee Hta concedes. She didn’t have a word of English when her family came over here but is now quite competent.
“It is so different here than at home. When we came here first we were leaving somewhere that was really hot and here it was cold and wet. It was difficult at first but we are happy here now. I didn’t know any English when I came here first but thanks to all the classes, I have learned. I’m so grateful to everyone at Mayo Intercultural Action,” she admitted.
And then there is the success of Aung San Suu Kyi and the possibility of peace in Burma.
“I love Aung San Suu Kyi because I love peace. I check the news every day in Burma on the internet. There was peace talks in January and there are peace talks this month in Burma. I hope it works out because I would love to go home and live and stay there,” she concluded.

HAVE YOUR SAY email edwinmcgreal@mayonews.ie with your comments